Napster moments reinvent a consumer experience completely, usually by an outsider. Even though Napster was not around to enjoy the moment, by inventing file sharing they enabled Apple to own the music business and completely reinvent the experience.
Critical to the big Napster moment is a smaller moment of democratization. It has been called a “Gutenberg moment,” named for the inventor of the printing press. The printing press is arguably one of the most important innovations in history, enabling access to books, newspapers and reading material previously only available to the rich. While Napster moments shift the experience, Gutenberg moments fuel Napster moments by shifting power into the hands of the many.
There are many examples of Gutenberg moments. How about the abundance of pricing information that is now available on used cars? You could think of it as democratizing the blue book. It makes a new experience like CarMax a possibility, and a reality. In the travel industry, Travelocity’s idea to put the American Airlines’ Sabre scheduling system in the hands of the public completely changed the experience of how and when we make travel arrangements, and has given more transparency to pricing. Big pharma has had a different kind of Gutenberg moment by democratizing the information about new drugs, virtually shifting the demand for drugs. Instead of drugs being pushed by doctors, advertisers are now creating pull dynamics, with consumers asking their doctors for the drugs they are interested in.
These power shifts enable consumers to amass knowledge on their own and have a profound impact on the role of the individual practitioner. Whether it is a used car salesman or dealership, a travel agency or a doctor, Gutenberg moments redefine the role of the professional, sometimes putting them into the position of validator or exception handler, rather than an advisor.
Despite the “sold, not bought” paradigm of insurance, this shift of power is happening in life insurance and related products, too. A recent study completed by LIMRA and Maddock Douglas reveals that there are more than 18 million “stuck shoppers” for life insurance. These are people who demonstrate that they have intention around life insurance acquisition, but they have no action. Typically, if a good agent is involved, action will take place. Prior to the democratization of information on the Web, agents had the responsibility for both creating the impetus for the need and for being the expert who fills it. So if shoppers are stuck, we have to conclude that the impetus for the need is coming from someone else, anyone from peers to pundits, and subject matter expertise is now decoupled from selling.
As an industry, we can try to fight against this trend. But this doesn’t acknowledge that the democratization genie doesn’t go back into the bottle. In today’s world of the self-directed “prosumer,” pushing back on democratization feels out of place, like the yellow cabs fighting Uber. So the question is: What consumer experience shift is likely to occur, and what role do we want to play in it?
Some may choose to lean as far into DIY as possible, creating experiences where consumers can transact completely on their own. Some may create hybrid models that lie somewhere between automated and face-to-face buying. Some may go the way of the travel agent, who didn’t totally disappear but now plays a “fringe” role and provides expertise and service for unusual needs like destination weddings, high-end corporate travel or exotic excursions. Some may find indirect ways to create engagement and pull demand, like pharma did. Others may choose to reinvent the experience of dealing with a professional advisor either by recasting the profession itself or by developing strategies that establish individuals or companies as experts, even before a conversation starts.
There is no single right answer; however, staying on top of consumer attitudes and behaviors can help us identify and seize the opportunities to innovate with democratization in mind, recognizing that the power that will be in the hands of consumers in the future will never be as limited as it is today.
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